Inside a government scheme that's serving no one and doing nothing.
I was told by my work coach that I’d been placed on something called the Restart scheme. The tacit implication was that I’d been claiming Universal Credit for too long. Fair enough. I did a bit of googling and found that three months earlier Restart had been given a kicking by the Guardian, which revealed that the scheme had only found a job for 7% of the participants enrolled on it. So my interest was piqued.
My first meeting at the local Restart centre would be Wednesday week. So, time-rich, I started poring over the relevant literature, instantly finding the aforementioned article and a stream of slaggings-off in darkened tributaries of the internet.
Why? Why exactly is Restart so rubbish? I was going to find out, as a mandatory condition of my Universal Credit claim, but also in exchange for money earned by writing about it for The Fence.
‘The Restart scheme is a shambles,’ says Nick*, a straight-talking work coach from the West Country and the first to cough up in my quest for comment. ‘I’ve been referring claimants to it, after constant, pushy direction from management, for over a year now.’
Some clarity: work coaches are employed directly by the state, specifically the Department for Work and Pensions (dwp). They are civil servants and work in Jobcentres, where they have caseloads of people, like me, who are in receipt of Universal Credit, a monthly payment from the government. We are claimants – people over 18 but below state pension age who are either on a low income or out of work entirely. We have regular meetings or phone calls with our work coaches, whose ultimate goal is to get us in full-time, well-paid jobs. For many claimants, this involves undertaking various mandatory ‘work-related activities’.
As Nick tells me: ‘Of the 40 or so claimants I’ve referred to Restart, none have ever found work. Over the same timeframe, many of my claimants who are not on the Restart scheme have found work.’
Does Nick have any idea what Restart actually does in order to help referrals?
‘From what my claimants tell me, it’s a load of pointless online questionnaires and a fortnightly telephone call, when their employment advisor does little more than ask how the job search is going.’
Nick’s account was all I was able to gather before my first Restart meeting. The building’s facade is box-fresh, conspicuous on one of Zone 4 London’s dustier high streets. Its office neighbours a branch of Herbalife Nutrition. I briefly consider where the similarities between the two schemes may or may not end before going inside and taking my seat.
It would be wrong to now divulge and deride the details of my first Restart meeting. I will only say that my employment advisor was very nice. A really very nice bloke indeed. But what is fair game for publication, however, is the Employment Support Hub. This is where my ‘new step-by-step guide to employment’ was waiting for me, inside the customer portal of Maximus uk, with whom I now had an account. Maximus uk, by the way, is one of various private companies that run Restart in partnership with the dwp (a dubious assembly that includes Serco and G4s).
I’m told I have a month to complete the ‘preparing to job search tasks’. There are eight modules, each with various tasks. The first is called Key Preparation Tasks. There are 13 tasks within this module. ‘Task’ and ‘Module’ appear with such interchangeable fluency that I get quite wound up. The first one I manage to begin is called Career Assessment Temperament, the second is Career Assessment Personality Insight. Both of these are Myers-Briggs-type affairs. A further splitting of tasks, ten or so, with an average of 30 multiple-choice questions, generally statements with which you can agree or disagree to various extents. It’s a Russian doll of nonsense that the already hard-to-employ are expected to not only navigate, but also, somehow, benefit from. Here are a few examples.
‘I find the time to be alone.’
‘I prefer to holiday in familiar places.’
‘I am relaxed most of the time.’
‘Tradition is important to me.’
‘I dislike arguments.’
‘I find the future and its possibilities more intriguing than frightening.’
‘I feel like I am often waiting on others, who never seem to be on time.’
‘I talk first, think later – sometimes I don’t know what I’ll say until it comes out my mouth.’
‘I need to spend time alone to recharge my batteries.’
‘I have strong beliefs.’
‘Being praised by my superiors for work well done motivates me.’
‘I leave a lot to chance.’
It takes at least two hours (cumulatively, over short, powerful bursts) to get through these, after which I’m given a report on my personality and have roles suggested to me.
Joe, a claimant from north Wales where Restart is delivered by Serco, was the next to distract me from work-related activities.
‘There’s no appointment system, so I only knew I was due for a meeting when they rang me the day before, which was no good for my anxiety. Everything was very disorganised.
‘Eventually, I got an assessment which confirmed I was still not fit for work and they stopped phoning me until about four months later, when I suddenly got a call from a new advisor. It turned out that the reason I hadn’t heard from them wasn’t because I was off their books, but because I’d been moved to another advisor who just didn’t fancy doing his job.
‘My next advisor was more proactive and started putting me forward for jobs. They were all in call centres, even though I’d told Restart I wouldn’t consider this line of work as that’s what led to my mental health going downhill in the first place. I was scared of being seen as uncooperative, though, in case it led to sanctions. So I went along with it.
‘I ended up passing an interview for one of them and recently started work again. I don’t know how long I’ll last this time. People like me make an ideal source of reserve labour for these outsourcing companies like Concentrix and Huntswood. We’re scared of sanctions and sick of living on a pittance, so we’re likely to accept worse working conditions.’
Stephen, a claimant in the East Midlands, was nearing the end of his 12 months on the scheme when I spoke to him. ‘I’ve been filled with dread before each meeting with my employment advisor, including the few I have left to go.
‘They told my work coach that I had turned down a job opportunity – something that could result in me being sanctioned financially. But they failed to mention that it was an unpaid role and only two weeks long. On another occasion they claimed to have bought me a bike, which was the first I’d heard of it.’
Does Stephen ascribe these mistakes to malice or incompetence?
‘Who knows? Probably incompetence but it wouldn’t surprise me if they fabricated a lie, even if was only to make it look like they’d done something.’
Other than the unpaid fortnight opportunity and the ghost bike, what have Restart done to help Stephen into work over the last year?
‘Not much. They’ve suggested the odd course for me to take. Overall, it’s just a horrible scheme, a horrible experience, and it’s made my mental health problems worse.’
I also asked Richard*, a work coach at a Jobcentre in central London about what he knew of the scheme. ‘From what I’ve heard, £1,000 goes to Restart per referral. I’ve also heard that employment advisors there are earning £41,000 a year, as opposed to the £31,000 a year a dwp work coach earns. It makes you wonder, how much money are the government spending on these private companies to produce a terrible, watered-down version of what fully-trained work coaches are already doing in Jobcentres?’
How much resentment is there between Jobcentre work coaches and the employment advisors at Restart?
‘I honestly want them to burn in a hole,’ jokes Richard. ‘Seriously though, our Jobcentre is falling apart while the local Restart office a few miles down the road has private shower rooms for staff. So that’s quite annoying.
‘It’s an ideologically driven venture, initiated by a government that has more faith in the private sector than its own civil service. Conveniently for them, there is nothing in place that measures how many people find work directly from Restart’s help. Management thinks that they get 500 Londoners into work each week, but this is impossible to corroborate.
‘If the government had thrown £3 billion into the dwp, and provided a larger number of well-trained work coaches working in better facilities with better resources, it’s hard to see how the outcomes wouldn’t be far superior.’
I’m now a few months into my Restart journey. I’ve spoken to my employment advisor once since our meeting. The phone never rang for our three other scheduled calls. This is completely fine by me.
It’s hard to say whether I even disapprove of the initiative. Receiving public money for daftness is exactly what I have been doing for two years. But if I were a taxpayer – and that day soon shall come – I’d be absolutely fuming.
*Names have been changed